Magazine article The Spectator

England Don't Arise!

Magazine article The Spectator

England Don't Arise!

Article excerpt

UNLESS some latter-day Edward Gibbon gets in quickly with the Decline and Fall of the British Empire it will be time for him to turn his mind to a much more topical theme: the decline and fall of the United Kingdom itself. Quite possibly the second development is going to happen so quickly that it will make only a postscript to the first, under some such title as The Devolution of Mr Blair. What then? Will that be the end of history so far as the English people are concerned?

Of course this is to jump the gun. Scottish devolution may not lead directly to Scottish independence, and the Good Friday agreement may not lead directly to a united Ireland - not at any rate in theory. But in practice both developments should now be regarded as pretty well a foregone conclusion, with Wales just possibly soon following down the same slippery slope. Then England will indeed `stand alone', as it did, according to legend, after the fall of France in 1940. That is known, of course, as England's finest hour, and there are some who feel that the break-up of the United Kingdom may herald a comparable English renaissance. Just as the English felt a great surge of pride in 1940 when rid of their allies, so will they feel the same when rid of their compatriots.

Wishful thinking, in my view. The breakup of the United Kingdom will deal a far more profound blow to the English psyche than the break-up of the Empire ever did. Whereas the loss of empire was like the loss of a glorious bit of clothing, the loss of Scotland would be like the loss of a leg. Certainly that would be my own reaction, for at school I absorbed Robbie Burns quite as much as Shakespeare, Walter Scott quite as much as Dickens, and gloried in the heroism of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace quite as much as that of the Black Prince or Henry V. Nor is it just accident that we always refer to the British army rather than to the English army. How could it be otherwise when in every famous picture of a post-Union battle - Waterloo, for example -- Scottish regiments are always in the forefront? In my imagination, at any rate, Scotland and England are inextricably intertwined, and the idea of separating my love for the one from my love for the other is wholly abhorrent.

Those, therefore, who speculate about the possibility of quickly replacing British patriotism with a new and more positive English patriotism seem to me dangerously wide of the mark. In time - 100 years hence, say - that might happen, but it will take generations to eliminate the Scottish genes from the English body politic. Nationalism, however, is quite another matter, the difference being, of course, that whereas patriotism arises out of love of one's own country, nationalism arises out of hatred for other peoples', and with the stuff of nationalism a newly liberated England might indeed be more than well endowed. That is the trouble. One can all too easily imagine the Sun newspaper making bad blood between the English and the Scots - rather as it now does between the English and the French -- thereby soon replacing mutual affection with mutual antagonism. Indeed this is pretty well bound to happen, which is why devolution can hardly fail to lead to full independence.

But will a tabloid-led English nationalism arising out of these fresh antagonisms accelerate the process of invigorating anything that can properly be called a positive English patriotism? Most unlikely, I would have thought, except among the most unlovable sections of the English population. Personally I can think of few developments more tragic than that of England and Scotland at each other's throats, and if that were indeed to happen, my reaction would be to turn against both.

What an ugly prospect: at one and the same time the revival of a Scottish nationalism defined by a tabloid-driven antagonism to England, and the revival - or creation from scratch - of an English nationalism defined by antagonism to Scotland. …

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